As President Bush presses for reforms, agents arrest 167 at a Portland plant, escalating the national debate
BRYAN DENSON and BRENT HUNSBERGER
The Oregonian, June 13, 2007
A federal raid on a large North Portland food processing plant Tuesday ended in the arrests of 167 workers, intensifying Oregon's immigration debate, tearing apart families, unnerving employers and sparking new calls for U.S. leaders to rewrite the nation's immigration laws.
An estimated 160 federal agents swept into Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc. and the firm that supplied its workers, American Staffing Resources, arresting three managers and locking up most of the arrested workers in a federal detention facility, where they face possible deportation.
The action was part of a six-month criminal investigation into the North Carolina-based employment agency, which U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement accuses of conspiring with Fresh Del Monte to hire and employ undocumented workers. Federal authorities allege that nine out of 10 employees hired by the staffing company used Social Security numbers that were fictitious or belonged to other people.
Government officials said it was the largest immigration raid on an Oregon workplace in recent memory.
The arrests came the same day that President Bush paid a rare visit to Capitol Hill to try to revive support for immigration overhaul legislation that faltered in Congress last week. Federal officials in Oregon said the timing of the raid in Portland and Bush's luncheon with leaders in Congress was coincidental.
The arrests sparked criticism from immigration reform supporters and workers rights advocates and Portland Mayor Tom Potter, who said the events underscore failures in federal immigration policies. At the same time, immigrants rights, religious and Latino activists moved to support those arrested and find housing and care for their family members.
An official at Fresh Del Monte Produce headquarters in Coral Gables, Fla., said he could not comment until federal investigators provided the company with more information. American Staffing Resources President Ray McDaniel said the business was cooperating with authorities and conducting its own investigation.
"We run an ethical, lawful business," he said. "We are as interested in bringing these people to justice as they are."
On a given day, about 600 employees work at the Fresh Del Monte plant in Portland in two separate shifts. They cut fruits and vegetables for grocers, restaurants and other retailers.
They were recruited and hired by American Staffing Resources, owned by North Carolina-based Staffco Management Group Inc., mostly to work for the state's minimum wage, $7.80 an hour.
Informant plays key role
The criminal case began shortly after Christmas, when immigration agents, operating on tips from the public, sent an informant to apply for work at Fresh Del Monte's plant on North Rivergate Boulevard.
The informant told a produce manager that he was born in Mexico and had no legal documentation to work in the United States. The manager pointed him to the nearby office of American Staffing Resources, according to a federal search warrant affidavit. There, wearing an audio recording device, the informant began gathering information that culminated in Tuesday's arrests.
In the early months of this year, according to the affidavit, managers told the informant he could find phony identification on the streets of Woodburn. One manager eventually sold the informant a Social Security card, the government alleges.
A joint investigation by immigration and Social Security Administration agents found that during one stretch last year, American Staffing Resources had employed 596 workers. Only 48 of them had valid Social Security numbers, according to the affidavit.
Some workers have criminal records, face deportation warrants or have been deported previously, justice officials said.
On Thursday, the U.S. Justice Department indicted staffing firm managers Margarita Amezcua-Salvador, Jose Dejesus Buenrostro and Jose De Jesus Zarazua-Lopez for alleged roles in the scheme and accused them of immigration crimes, document fraud and identity theft, according to federal prosecutors.
Tuesday morning, agents arrested Amezcua-Salvador and Dejesus Buenrostro in Portland and Zarazua-Lopez in Fresno, Calif. They detained 167 Fresh Del Monte workers under administrative arrest, accusing them of being in the country illegally.
Around noon Tuesday, about a half-dozen federal agents hauled boxes of documents out of American Staffing Resources' office in Portland's St. Johns neighborhood. A "closed" sign hung on the office door, and the shades were fully drawn on the agency's windows.
Karin Immergut, U.S. attorney for Oregon, said federal prosecutors do not get involved in cases in which undocumented foreigners are living illegally in the United States. Immergut's office took on this investigation in light of allegations of felony document fraud and identity theft, she said.
"We have enough to do going after people with felony convictions," she said.
The roundup was "set a month ago, give or take," said Leigh Winchell, special agent in charge of ICE's regional office in Seattle, and had nothing to do with Bush's meeting with Congress.
Of those arrested, 32 were released for humanitarian reasons, said Marc A. Raimondi, a Washington, D.C.-based spokesman for ICE. Those released, he said, were either single parents or sole caregivers of dependent children or ill family members but would be required to appear in front of an immigration judge.
The detainees were scheduled to be taken to an ICE processing center in Tukwila, Wash., before being moved to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
Some fear more raids
Tuesday's raid signaled a higher level of immigration enforcement in the Portland area, said Sabino Sardineta, executive director of Centro Cultural in Cornelius, a social service agency for Latino immigrants.
"I heard that some people were afraid that there would be raids in numbers we had not seen before," Sardineta said. A couple of weeks ago, many were optimistic that a Senate bill might offer a path to legalization, he said. "People have gone from hope to fear in a very short time."
Jim Ludwick, president of Oregonians for Immigration Reform, said the number of Fresh Del Monte workers alleged to have fake documents shows how poorly the United States enforces its immigration laws.
"This is what happens when companies are not held responsible for their hiring actions," Ludwick said, adding that an endless supply of illegal workers helps companies such as Fresh Del Monte "keep wages low and working conditions poor."
Federal law requires employers to ask workers for documentation of legal standing but does not require employers to verify workers' paperwork with the government. The "don't ask, don't tell" arrangement benefits both parties and is the target of immigration reformists.
Mayor criticizes action
Potter expressed anger that families were swept up in the arrests, saying the raid stemmed from a failure of Bush and Congress to craft reforms that are fair and workable for employees and business.
"I certainly understand why federal officials executed criminal warrants against three individuals who stole and sold Social Security numbers," Potter said in a statement. "But to go after local workers who are here to support their families while filling the demands of local businesses for their labor is bad policy."
He noted that no Portland police officers helped in the raid.
Del Monte's plant had been the source of recent worker complaints about unsafe conditions and improper pay. In August, the food giant paid $400,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by eight ex-workers employed by another firm, Quality Manual Labor Inc.
Those workers accused both companies of violating state law by firing them for raising safety concerns and withholding overtime pay, break periods and safety gear for hundreds of employees. Fresh Del Monte fired Quality Manual Labor before the settlement and hired American Staffing Resources in its place.
Reporters Angie Chuang, Jeff Manning, Steve Mayes, Esmeralda Bermudez and researcher Lynne Palombo of The Oregonian contributed to this report.
Brent Hunsberger: 503-221-8359; firstname.lastname@example.org; blog.oregonlive.com/atwork